Surviving a tortuous expedition
Todd Balf continues to excel in writing about man's battle against the unknown and unforeseen forces of nature. He scored three years ago with his best-selling The Last River, an action-packed account of an American whitewater kayaking team in Tibet. Now comes The Darkest Jungle: The True Story of the Darién Expedition and America's Ill-Fated Race to Connect the Seas, in which he focuses on the search for a route to provide the world's ultimate shortcut: a canal through Panama to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceansBalf reconstructs the absorbing 1854 saga of Navy Lt. Isaac G. Strain, whose 27-man task force underwent a grueling ordeal marked by unreliable maps, tropical fever, scorpions and flesh-dwelling parasites, rusted weapons, fear of Indian attacks, bouts of hallucination, mutinous temptations and cannibalistic impulsesin a terrain so torturous and a climate so cruel they were compelled to abandon some of their helpless colleagues who could not keep up.
Balf, a former senior editor of Outside magazine, demolishes the widely held notion that starvation is almost impossible in a lush jungle. Small game, reptiles and birds were difficult to catch and, added to retch-provoking plants, were unable to fulfill even the minimum food requirements of Lt. Strain's weakened colleagues. At one point, the crewmembers survived by gorging themselves with palm nuts, the acid of which dissolved their tooth enamel and eroded their digestive systems. When rescued after the three-month nightmare, an emaciated Lt. Strain weighed 75 pounds, half his normal weight.
By chronicling the details of this incredible journey of survival, Balf has rescued Lt. Strain's expedition from vanishing into history.
Alan Prince lectures at the University of Miami School of Communication.